Feb 25 2006
Okay let’s talk monitoring, which is a fancy word for actually listening to what you are recording or have already recorded. There are basically two ways to monitor, via loudspeakers and via headphones. I’m hoping to address using loudspeakers in the next episode and I’ll concentrate on headphones for this episode.
If you are going to do any serious recording on your Mac you need both a good set of speakers (and I don’t mean the cheapy computer type) and a decent set of closed back headphones (not the “walkman” type.) The main reason for this is that if you’re recording with a microphone and monitoring the recording with speakers or open type headphones you are almost sure to create a feedback loop. And feedback is both damaging to your hearing and your psyche.
Although you may be tempted to buy a cheap set of headphones, don’t. There are some excellent headphones out there for under a hundred dollars and they are worth every penny.
I’ll take a quick look at three brands that you can get for under a C-note. Specifically Sony MDR-7506s, AKG 240s and Sennheiser HD-260s. A listener recently e-mailed me about my choice of the Sony MDR-7506 headphones in my “best toys for under a hundred bucks” article. He had tried out the Sony, AKG240 and Sennnheiser HD-280 headphones. His contention was that the Sennheisers where acoustically superior and wondered why anyone would consider the two other models because of their “colored” sound.
I wrote back that besides acoustic accuracy, there are other factors to consider when choosing headphones. To quote my reply:
Truth in monitoring is probably the most subjective and complex area in all of pro-audio. It’s like when gawd awful Yamaha NS-10s used to be the near field “standard” speaker in studios (yuk!). In essence almost all audio playback is “colored” unless you are in the exact same room with the same speakers that the mastering engineer used for a particular album. Headphone serve other purposes than just accurate monitoring, in fact I would argue that for true critical listening you need great speakers in a great room, something you’re not going to get for under a $100. Now, what headphones are good for is hearing yourself sing or play when recording, listening to playback in less than ideal environments and as a portablPersonally I like the 7506’s for several reasons. First they are more portable and louder (efficient) than the 240s or the HD280s. I’ve used AKG240s in the studio for years and yes they are excellent cans although the don’t isolate you from external noise as well as the other two. The Sennheisers are very neutral and my only real gripe is that they break. The “fork” that mounts the ear cup has broken on several pairs that I’ve seen. I’m always throwing my Sonys in my bag and haven’t broken a pair yet. As far as how they sound, I’m used to the Sony’s and as my hearing deteriorates having something that you are familiar with becomes more important.
But the real bottom line is that you can’t go wrong with any of these three models and buy whichever of them best suits you and your needs and taste.
Now let’s take a look at how to use headphones while recording. The simplest set up is where you plug your headphones into the built-in Audio output of your Mac or audio interface hooked up to your Mac. This works sometimes but more often not the sound in your headphones is slightly delayed from what you are recording with the microphone. This is called latency, and is caused by the time that it takes for the computer to process the audio from analog from your mic to digital and back to analog for you headphones again. There are a couple of work-arounds for this situation. The first is reducing the audio buffer size. Most audio recording programs have some sort of buffer setting in their recording preferences menu. In the Case of GarageBand it’s under Audio MIDI in the preferences menu. Set the radio button to “Minimum delay when playing instruments live.” The second thing you can do is turn off monitoring for the track that you are recording. This allows you to hear the playback of your previously recorded tracks just not the track that you are recording. Since you can hear yourself acoustically this method can work. However a lot of vocalist and players like to hear effects on their voice and instruments as they record. If this is the case you are stuck with monitoring the record track and any resulting delay. This even applies to the next method that I’m going to talk about. Many higher end audio interfaces have a feature called “direct monitoring.” This takes the takes the signal directly from your mic and mixes it with the sound of your previously recorded tracks from the computer. This method allows you to hear yourself without latency, however, like I mentioned before, it doesn’t allow you to hear effects on your voice or instrument. Latency is less of a problem on really fast computers using dedicated internal sound cards but usually theses out of the budget range of the average recordist. You can also try to lighten the load on your computer’s processor by “freezing” or locking previously recorded tracks.
One final note is that with headphones it’s especially important to protect your hearing at all times. If you want to continue to enjoy your music later in life keep your monitoring levels low. Everybody’s hearing deteriorates over time, but reasonable monitoring levels will help you keep your golden ears until your golden years.